December 6, 2009


As part of our training in the Peace Corps, we take 5 days to see what life as a volunteer is really like by travelling to a current PCV's site and following them around all day ("shadowing" them). Many of us went up north to shadow, but a few went to Iringa and Mbeya in the south, and a few to the Dodoma region west of Morogoro. On Wednesday Novemeber 11th, I travelled north to Lushoto in the Tanga region. However, I didn't arrive at my shadowing site until Thursday. This is where the story begins.

At our last CCT day of October, the LCFs announced our shadow sites and our fellow shadower(s), as well as some pointers on how to travel to our sites. We had to make arrangements on our own (all part of the shadow experience). I got paired up with my friend from the infamous wtf moment, Charlotte, and we were headed near Lushoto in the Tanga region. As trainees going north into Tanga and Kilimanjaro, we were instructed to take the Hood bus out of Morogoro and up to Mombo, which is about an hour and a half from Lushoto by daladala/bus. But when we contacted our PCV, she instructed us to take a different route, which required a bus change in Chalinze, about an hour east of Morogoro. This is because there is only one bus that runs up to her town from Dar, meaning you have one shot every day at getting up there. Taking the bus into Mombo meant an overnight stay somewhere else. Charlotte and I decided to give our PCV's advice a shot, so we planned accordingly. It required getting up at 5 in the morning on Wednesday to catch the Abood bus going to Dar at 6am, of which we were reluctant but willing to abide.

Approximately 15 minutes into our Abood journey, Charlotte fell asleep. Not a problem, since I felt confident in my ability to stay awake. Unfortunately, the conductor on the bus did not announce the stops we were making, so we missed our stop in Chalinze. We missed it by quite a bit actually. Since the conductor wasn't announcing stops, nor were the stops marked with a name in any way, we ended up going past Chalinze by about 60km. When we finally got off the bus (we got dropped off literally on the side of the road), we had to take a daladala ride back into Chalinze (approximately 45 minutes) so that we could catch the Hood bus we would've taken in the first place (it left at 9am). A small kink in the plans, which meant we wouldn't get to our site until the next day, but it turned out for the best. After we got to Chalinze, Charlotte and I ate an entire pineapple together for breakfast. Best breakfast ever! We also bought one for our hostess, which miraculously survived the bus trips to follow (the bus trips and what we did with the pineapple will come in another part).

We waited another hour or so until our friends arrived on the Hood bus, after which we were all headed north. And so, by 1:30pm on Wednesday, we made it to Mombo in the Tanga region!

I pick up where I left off in Mombo, Tanga, where we have just been price-gouged by an Indian restaurant owner who promised us good prices on good food. Another PCV, John, met us as we deboarded the bus, and he escorted all 6 of us trainees to our respective areas. Since Charlotte and I had no way of getting to our site by the end of the day, we decided to stay with the PCV our other shadow friends were staying with, making 4 of us travelling up to her site. After a 40 minute daladala ride through unbelieveably beautiful mountains, we arrived at the market near her site.

She met us at the bus stop and informed us there were two possible routes up to her house; a daladala ride around the mountain in front of us, or a hike straight through it. Being the adventurous type, we all chose the hike. She warned us that it was steep, but we were excited to get some much needed exercise. Oh, how blissfully ignorant we were. She wasn't exaggerating when she said it was steep. Actually, she could've done a much better job at conveying the steepness of the ascent. Climb is actually a better word to use, because I felt the need to have three points of contact at certain times. There's no way around saying it; her school and her house are literally on top of a mountain. A mountain with narrow, steep, treacherous paths that we walked upon for over an hour and a half. But my God was it beautiful! The views on the hike are unreal! Even more so once you reach the summit. Her site brings new meaning to the phrase "city on a hill." This whole region does, as we would soon find out. These towns aren't just on the hill, they go all the way down. I don't know how these houses don't just slide until they crash into the valley below, but they are incredible, unlike anything I've ever seen.

And so we spent that night recovering from the hike, cooking rice with peanut sauce, making brownies, and sharing all of the weirdest things about ourselves (some of us having more to share than others). Tomorrow, my shadow friend and I would be on our way north.

It is now Thursday morning, and Charlotte and I have a bus to catch down the mountain. Naturally, we decided to return the way we came, which, as I had predicted for myself, was worse than the trip up. By the time we got to the road, our legs were shaking nervously at every step, and we simply hoped they would function long enough to get us back to the bus stop. Now allow me to return to our pineapple.

Our poor pineapple had to survive a trip up the mountain in our first hostess' bag and a trip down in our hands, which it did graciously enough. After descending, Charlotte and I got the idea to make pineapple upside-down cake for our hostess. We weren't sure if she had some of the ingredients, so after calling our friend Owen for the list, we made our way through the soko (market) searching for the essentials. While most people can speak Kiswahili in Tanzania, locals sometimes prefer to use the native tribal language. This is the case where we were, which created yet another language barrier. Luckily, Kiswahili is the fallback language for most, and some even knew a little English.

After picking up some cake ingredients, we headed to the bus stop to wait for our ride. As we waited, we spoke some Kiswahili to some locals waiting with us, and one of them bought us bananas! Certainly a welcome treat during our wait. Finally our bus arrived, with "Picnic Class" painted across the front. Not sure what that means. It was about a 45 minute drive into Lushoto, which was fairly uneventful. The next 3 hours, however, could be described in a number of different ways. After Lushoto, the road we rode upon was no longer paved, and it winded around the Usambara mountains, occasionally dipping into the valley to pass through small towns. Needless to say, it wasn't the most comfortable 3 hours I've spent on a bus, especially considering the complimentary vomit bags that are supplied to passengers. Luckily for me, I was so transfixed on the vistas outside my window, I didn't notice all the people throwing up around me.

We arrived safely at our destination in the evening, stomachs intact for the most part, and met our hostess right off the bus. After a quick tour of the school and the surrounding area, we cooked dinner and the most delicious cake I've ever taken part in making, which brings be back to the pineapple.

Our pineapple, which survived the grueling 3 hour trip out to our shadow site, was made into one of the greatest cakes I've ever eaten. We only needed a few slices for our upside-down cake, and the rest went into a bowl that was snacked upon for the next two days. Not only was it our dessert, but it was also a bedtime treat and breakfast the next morning! I know it's silly that I'm talking about this pineapple so much, but it was really that good.

The next day would bring many blessings, including a hike to one of the most beautiful places I've seen in my life.

We awoke quickly Friday morning to accompany our hostess to her school where, because it was getting close to exams, she didn't teach formal classes, but let the students ask questions about the material. Since we were there, it quickly turned into a question session about America. In the 4 classes we visited, we were asked about Michael Jackson twice, to which I was happy to quickly reply "Michael Jackson is dead."

Later in the afternoon, we decided to take a hike out to a town near our shadow site, which is essentially a town up on top of a cliff. The walk took about an hour, and much like the scenery everywhere in Lushoto, it was BEAUTIFUL! The pictures hardly do it justice. We ate lunch in town, bought some groceries for our dinner that night, then headed back.

Our evening was fairly quiet, consisting of reading and listening to the radio. A heavy rainstorm rolled in about the time we started cooking our dinner and we saw a full-arch rainbow over the mountains! Our dinner that night was sloppy joes with homemade rolls and chocolate bundt cake. A satisfying ending to a delightful day. Almost immediately after finishing our food, we had to hit the hay because the next day had an early wake-up call; 4:15am. The reason being the bus we were going to catch back into Lushoto passed by our neck of the woods at about 5:00am. A shame, considering that's one of the latest buses you can board to go back south. I suppose there's a price to the landscape.

Our plan the next day was for another hike, though much longer than the walk we had just completed. The volunteers had planned a get-together for all of us, and ironically it was in a very familiar place.

You would think I would be tired at 4 in the morning, but I went to bed at about 8:30, so I felt fresh and energized, ready for the day. This turned out to be a good thing because we had some hiking planned for Saturday, how much hiking exactly, Charlotte and I did not fully understand.

Our first charge was to survive the bus ride back through the mountains. While the first bus ride for me was a pleasant experience, the return trip was a slightly different story. It's hard to be blissfully ignorant of the people around you when an old lady sitting in the row in front of you is making loud moaning noises, hanging her head outside the window like a seasick sailor. This was about 20 minutes into our 3 hour trip, so I wasn't holding out much hope for my own stomach's well-being. But then a stroke of luck! She got off the bus after her little episode. Of course, that just leaves an open seat for the bus's next victim, at least so I thought. But in reality it wasn't the seat in front of me that would host the next bag-holder. It was the seat immediately to my left.

An older man in some kind of track jacket was sitting with his head between his legs. The other half of the time he spent leaning, pushing all of his body weight into my left shoulder, squishing me into my shadow friend on my right. Thankfully, he never actually vomited, but he threatened to on a number of occasions.

After 3 hours graciously passed, we deboarded a few miles north of Lushoto so that we could walk to the house of a volunteer couple living in the area. The plan was to hike from their house all the way to the volunteer we spent the night with on Wednesday. The walk to the couple was about 5k, a very scenic 5k. But the hike to the other site near Lushoto was about 14 or 15k. Not exactly your average stroll through the mountains. When we arrived in town, we picked up some ingredients for our main course that night; pizza! Our volunteer friend that was playing host had a brick oven, so we were going to attempt homemade brick oven pizzas. After buying the veggies and crust ingredients, we split up into two groups. One group took a taxi up the mountain to save their legs, and to carry all the luggage. The rest of us (only three of us including me), made the trek up the mountain by foot. Yes, after hiking 19k in the morning, I decided to repeat the mountain climb I did just a few days before. This time, I scaled it in about half the time, bouncing up the steepest parts with relative ease.

And as luck would have it, we arrived just as the rest of the group arrived with their escort. We unpacked and got started right away on the pizzas, since it was the evening by this point. There were about 14 of us altogether, including 6 trainees. Multiply by cooking time for pizzas, and it was readily obvious it might be a while before some people got to eat. Everyone did eventually get a pizza, though most of them turned out doughy. The oven just wasn't hot enough. The bread we baked after the pizzas did very well however, and we ate that for breakfast the next morning.

It was a great party overall, given all the different levels of experiences represented in the people there. Some were on their way out, others in their second year of service, and the 6 of us staring down the assignments we would be taking up in the coming weeks.

That night, 14 of us slept cramped in a house built for no more than 4, splayed out on the concrete floor in the living room. It looked like a jigsaw puzzle the way everyone's legs tangled together, but we all fit...barely. We awoke the next day stiff and sleep deprived, at least those of us who haven't trained ourselves in the art of claustrophobic communal resting on concrete floors. A few, not including me, announced to the rest of us how well they slept.

Our last day was here, and another adventure awaited.

You'd think with 14 of us, we might hitch a ride with a bus up to Lushoto. But being the resourceful, rugged American Peace Corps Volunteers and Trainees that we are, we opted for the cheaper option, a daladala. Cheaper certainly at a price.

It would've actually been quite comfortable if it was just the 14 of us in the rickety van that was probably older than me, but the conductor, like all the others, had no sense of balance between maximizing the occupancy of the vehicle and maintaining its structural integrity. He simply tried to cram as many people in as possible, instructing the passengers in ways to fill the entire volume of the cabin, floor to ceiling. I had the privilege of sitting in the back with 5 people in a row built for 4, with one leg firmly jammed into the back of the seat ahead of me because of the gigantic semi-sized tire underneath my feet. As if that wasn't enough, we had bags upon bags of rice and flour piled on top of one another in the 3 inches of space between us and the back hatch, pushing us unwillingly into the fetal position.

Loaded with about 46 people at my own exaggerated estimate, we endured the 30 minute ride to town, which surely you can imagine seemed like being stuck in purgatory. Our plan, after deboarding and regaining sense of our limbs, was to stay in a hotel in town that night before us trainees made the trip back to Dar. We tried the "safi" (directly translated as "clean," but meaning "nice") hotels first, but both were booked completely with tourists on safaris, there to hike the mountains or passing through on their way undoubtedly to Kili or the Serengeti. We managed to book rooms at a hotel actually closer to the town proper than the other two, as luck would have it.

Many of us were still exhausted from the night before, but another opportunity for adventure beckoned us. Just a short hour and a half hike from where we were, there was a lookout point that gave a spectacular view of the plains of Tanzania in the area, and one of our hosts was willing to guide us there if we were up for the walk. Most of the group rejected the idea outright, while some were hesitant. Even after the 20k+ of hiking I did the day before, not to mention the mountainous descent I had done that morning for the second time, I was undeterred by another journey. It's been a long time since I've hiked anywhere, so I figured I'd take any chance I could get while I'm here.

Armed with rain jackets because of the looming cloud cover moving in, three of us set off for the viewpoint. The scenery on our walk was nothing short of what I expected from any area of Lushoto; graceful, gorgeous, and green. Our path winded around a mountain, much like many of the roads I travelled by bus the past 4 days. We greeted travellers as we walked, everyone impressed by our knowledge of the Kiswahili language and culturally appropriate greetings. It was evident that we were nearing our destination when the sky in front of us started getting bigger, finally reaching that point where the fixed horizon lowers and lowers as you close in on it. As we ascended the man-laid steps of stone up to the lookout point, a boy not older than 18 followed us up the hill, talking to us in English about his friend's taxi that could take us wherever we wanted. Even after declining 5 or 6 times, he "escorted" us to the lookout area to narrate the things we would see. We figured he would be looking for payment for his "services" once we began our return trip, so we decided to plan our descent accordingly.

There's not much I can tell you about what I saw, but I've uploaded a panormaic view taken at the lookout. Had there not been a large trash pile burning just below us, the view may have been a bit clearer. It was still spectacular to see though. It's hard to grasp the reality of the distance you can see, thinking "those mountains out there would be a 3 hour bus ride from where I stand." But ironically, it makes me want to find a higher viewpoint. "If I can go a little higher, maybe I could see Kili from here..." I suppose that's the part of me talking that wants to be an astronaut, the man that has the ultimate view of the Earth as he circles it endlessly.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we were sweaty, exhausted, with blisters on our feet, but filled with the spirit of nature. As a celebration of our completion of shadow, we went out that night to eat dinner on the streets in town. Accurately dubbed "street food," you sit on wobbly benches and eat native Tanzanian cuisine freshly prepared outside on the street. Some of us opted for the staples of rice and beans, while others risked sickness by eating chipsi mayai (french fries and eggs) and nyama choma (essentially a meat kabob). We finished our celebration at the local grocery, fraternizing over beers and sodas about our recent shared experiences and the ones yet to come.

Overall, shadow was very much like a vacation. After training hard for almost 8 weeks, we spent 5 days travelling on buses, hiking through mountains, and speaking mostly English. Probably not the best way to prepare for the Oral Proficience Interview that was 5 days away. But it was a welcome break from the everyday struggle to communicate, the lesson plans, and the arduous language training. We were nearing the light at the end of the tunnel, and we were happy.